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"Washington Heights" tells the story of Carlos Ramirez, a young illustrator burning to escape the Latino neighborhood of the same name to make a splash in New York City's commercial downtown comic book scene. When his father, who owns a bodega in the Heights, is shot in a burglary attempt, Carlos is forced to put his dream on hold and run the store. In the process, he comes to understand that if he is to make it as a comic artist, he must engage with the community he comes from, take that experience back out into the world, and put it in his work. Written by
In the last few decades, the neighborhood of Washington Heights in upper Manhattan has changed from the predominantly German Jewish area I grew up in to one that is now almost exclusively Dominican. The change took place gradually after thousands of small landowners in the Dominican Republic were dispossessed in 1965-1966 following the U.S. military invasion and occupation. When I think about the Heights of my youth, I can still smell the freshly baked rye bread from the Jewish bakeries on St. Nicholas Avenue and taste the kosher pickles from my father's delicatessen on 193rd street. Now, as captured by first-time director Alfredo de Villa in the film Washington Heights, the streets are filled with salsa music and bodegas and domino players in the streets. Shot on digital video in basements, streets, alleys, and ground floor apartments in only 18 days with a minimal budget, Washington Heights is about fathers and sons, the conflict of generations, and the sad undercurrent of violence that is a part of the assimilation process.
In the film, two sons are hampered in their attempts to realize their dreams. Carlos Ramirez (Manny Perez) commutes daily to the East Village to work as a comic book inker and longs to have his own imprint house. He is unwilling to forgive his father Eddie (Tomas Milian) for cheating on his mother. Eddie, who owns the corner bodega, had to give up his own goal to become a bolero singer when he married and had a son and now scorns his son's artistic ambitions. In a subplot, Carlos' friend Mickey, the son of an Irish building manager Sean Kilpatrick (Jude Ciccolella) dreams of winning a bowling tournament is Las Vegas but his father does everything he can to keep him stuck in his job as a building superintendent.
Tragically, Carlos' plans are put on hold after his father is shot and paralyzed during a robbery. It is a struggle for both men to accept the new conditions of their life and old resentments quickly boil to the surface but there are tender moments as well. When Carlos takes over the business, however, he discovers that his father owes a debt of $25,000 to Kilpatrick and is determined to work until he can pay off the debt. Carlos' preoccupation with running the business and taking care of his father puts strains on his relationship with his dressmaker girl friend Maggie (Andrea Navedo) and she says to Carlos: "You think you are an artist but you're just a guy whose father owns a bodega."
Things become even more complicated when his girl friend's brother, Angel (Bobby Cannavale) hides the money he is saving to return to the Dominican Republic in his LP collection and foolishly tells people where it is. Ultimately, Carlos is able to use his experience with his father to deepen his commitment to the neighborhood and to transform the quality of his art. I found Washington Heights to be predictable and sometimes amateurish, but it is an honest and involving film that portends a bright future for the director and his cast and one I would not hesitate to recommend.
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